Listen to this track by politically motivated globetrotting singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Call it Democracy”, a song as taken from his 1986 album World Of Wonders.
Cockburn had spent the 1980s making albums and writing songs while also making personal trips to points on the map where the negative effects of Western economic policy was making the most impact in that era. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund continued their “aid” to Third World countries, lending them the funds to manage their economies effectively (read: in line with Western corporate agendas) in exchange for turning over their right to self determination in support of private interests. This was, and is today, generally done by way of huge rates of interest on loans that are designed to never be paid off. Certain people might say this is nothing less than economic imperialism. People like me, say.
Heavy stuff, I know.
So, how does Cockburn make this into a compelling song, and not just an over-earnest polemic? Because when it comes to writing political songs, this is what separates the big dogs from the furry fashion accessories.
It helps that he had direct experience with the effects of what he’s singing about, traveling to where the effects could be felt the most personally. Bruce Cockburn has written about this kind of political and economic maneuvering for a good chunk of his career by now, doing just that. All the while, he’s made music that is noted for its dynamism, high levels of musicianship, and for its value as pure performance while doing so, never letting a message get in the way of the art.
That’s what is more than evident here on this tune, a song driven by his machine gun stream of lyrical protest that touches on dirty deals with tin pot leaders, the machinations of big business, the poor cast aside, and lots of money to be made at their expense. But, it’s the rhythm of those words and the musical drive behind them that makes this song sing. The lyrics are less the sermon, and is almost like a percussion line on this song. Cockburn’s guitar solo weeps with bitter anger at a world gone wrong, as wondrous as it is. Perhaps it’s because of that sense of wonder that makes the injustice that colours it so hard to accept. This is an important thread to follow in his music, particularly from the early ’80s and into the ’90s; that a sense of outrage at the world is fed by single moments of profundity and well-being, contrasted with the bigger picture of injustice and suffering.
With that understood, this song demonstrates another aspect of Cockburn’s approach to songwriting, too. By this time in his career, the quasi-mysticism undercurrents to his writing had taken on some pretty strident political characteristics. The single observations of beauty and transcendence which informed his early work are still there. But, they are put into a relevant context to what’s external to them. His interest in spirituality and his sociopolitical impulses are often cited as the two poles in Cockburn’s music in general. But, I don’t really see them as poles so much as I used to, being a pretty long-term Cockburn fan by now. The dichotomies between politics and spirituality, and between nature and civilization are the engine of his creative output. They are inextricable elements of his work.
In this song, the lines “The only response to the deification of tyranny by so-called developed nations/Idolatry of ideology” certainly bears this out. With this song, we get the language of both the spiritual and the political, and the veil between the two are lifted; “deification”, “tyranny”, “idolatry”, “ideology”. This is all to say that Cockburn is not just a political writer for politics sake. A song as strident as this one could not have been written if Cockburn didn’t have some vision for a better world, at least partially informed by a conflicting worldview to that of the “dirty MFs” mentioned in the song. After all, the album off of which this song comes is called World Of Wonders, with many other songs celebrating the delicate beauty of the world in its fine details, balanced against the hardships which happen in it. “Call It Democracy” is not a cynical song, even if it’s an angry one.
For idealists and visionaries everywhere, this anger is well understood in a world that keeps us all from a better version of itself that is just and fair, and where the needs of people and of families, no matter where they live, are more important than the movements and successes of corporations and private interests. That point alone indeed does “render rage a necessity”, when we think of how much better our world could be were we to decide to abandon greed for compassion, exploitation for empathy, and (in the words of another song) embrace one world not three. This song is not a church sermon, nor is it a partisan polemic.
It is a lament.
Bruce Cockburn is an active musician and activist today. Catch up to him at Brucecockburn.com
And for more, here’s a live version of “Call It Democracy”.